(This article was originally published on DataInformed by Anjali Norwood.)
One advantage of being a woman at a tech conference is that there’s no line for the women’s restroom.
That’s not why we go to conferences, of course. We go for the same reasons men go – to see what’s new in our chosen field, share our lessons learned through presentations, and network with our peers. And that last bit can often be the low point of these conferences – especially the booze-infused evening parties meant for networking. Being in the minority can make these events difficult for women to navigate.
Networking is essential for career advancement – you can meet new people, catch up with those you already know, and potentially introduce yourself to your next employer or business partner. But that path can be complicated for women, especially in tech, where your boss and peers all are likely to be men. The “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” attitude often prevalent at these conferences (whether held in Vegas or not) doesn’t help, either.
It’s been well established in study after study that the shortage of women in the tech industry is detrimental to the industry. So we need to make the tech conference networking culture more inclusive. This willingness for change was evident at the Hadoop Summit in San Jose last month. As one of the largest big data events of the year, the Hadoop Summit is a prime place to see the disparity of the gender gap in big data right in front you. Imagine my delight when, this year, I witnessed two events that provided a glimpse of how you can drive meaningful discussions around women in tech in different ways – through mentoring and forums, and also through laughter.
First, the Women in Big Data Lunch and panel discussion presented five women at different stages of their careers – from a high school student who is participating in a local Girls Who Code club to Ingrid Burton, the Chief Marketing Officer of conference host Hortonworks. Each panelist shared her story. All of them faced the familiar issues of inclusion and work-life balance. During the Q and A, a senior engineer from Hortonworks, Yolanda Davis, mentioned the “Oh! Culture” to a round of applause and nodding heads. For the uninitiated, this refers to when a woman in tech walks into a room and people find out she’s an engineer. They often respond with a shocked, “Oh!”
The lunch panel reached the hour it was to end, but the audience questions and networking continued for another hour. One participant shared a suggestion from her female mentor that she not wear her wedding ring to an interview, as people do not want to hire married women. This wasn’t a memory from the 1950s; it happened earlier this year, showing that we still have a long way to go.
The second example of meaningful discourse was a Hadoop Summit after-party event, which was a refreshing antidote to those oh-so-overdone evening cocktail parties. Instead of heavy drinking and loud music, it was a sketch comedy event that highlighted the barriers to access for women in the tech industry and other ironies of working in Silicon Valley. The show featured sketches like Lean In, in which cavewoman Sheryl Caveberg talked about the positives and negatives of leaning in, and Babysitters’ Club, in which one member said, “Boys just aren’t that good at babysitting. It’s not their fault; it’s just the way their brains work.” (Who hasn’t heard something similar when discussing girls or women in math or science?) Major players across the big data industry united around the event, with co-sponsors including partners, affinity groups, and even the competition. You know you are doing something right when even your competitors want to join you.
The event raised over $35,000 to benefit the innovative nonprofit Girls Who Code. Their programs educate, equip, and inspire girls with the computing skills they will need to pursue 21st century opportunities. With 400,000 girls enrolled in 42 states, Girls Who Code has created the largest pipeline of future female engineers in the United States.
My company, Arcadia Data, underwrote this comedy event. As a founding engineer at Arcadia (three of our four founding engineers are women), I am proud to say that our development team is 30 percent women, compared to the industry average of only 13 percent. As we continue to build our team, I look forward to seeing this number grow closer to 50 percent. The way we see it, as an industry, we can’t innovate if we keep hiring the same kind of people we have always been hiring. It’s ridiculous to draw from only half of the talent pool.
An MIT study shows that only 20 percent of computer science degrees are going to women. And only 13 percent of engineers are women. Shockingly, this number has actually decreased over the years. Thirty plus years ago, 37.1 percent of computer science degrees were awarded to women; in 2011, it had dropped to fewer than 12 percent. So the increase in technology and the growth in data as a resource have not lowered the barriers to access for women.
To close the gender gap in technology, we need to inspire girls to pursue computer science through organizations like Girls Who Code, and to keep women in tech fields by lowering the barriers through access to mentors, job opportunities, and funding. Bringing awareness to men and camaraderie to women through both shared stories and comedy is a good start.
Anjali Norwood, a Database Architect and Founding Engineer at Arcadia Data, leads the Arcadia Data ArcEngine team. Her team is responsible for building a high performance, robust and scalable engine to serve queries against massive amounts of data. Her expertise is in database query optimization and performance over distributed systems.